Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Case for Case

Send me back to Ling-610 if you want, but I still find something fishy or funny about the claim that Case is a vacuous, meaningless item void of any interpretation whatsoever. We have to admit that there's a high coincidence in, especially more synthetic languages, Case marking and theta-role interpretation. In fact, the first thing I go to when learning a language is the Case system, as that's intrumental in expressing a thought (the second would be relative clause markers). Besides, is there anything that we could pinpoint as a theta-role marker aside from Case, or, in some languages word order, or in some languages, both? I dearly hope the point of disparaging Case marking is not to light a candle at the alter of the supremacy of word order; just because some languages like English don't have profligate Case marking doesn't mean that Case is worthless other than serving as something that allegedly drives syntactic process by serving to highlight the availablity of an alleged Goal. After all, in languages with free word order, Case marking is the only savior in decoding the object-action schemas. And please don't tell me that that device is better served by a 'scrambled' underlying word-order, as that just smacks of English hedgemony.

So, the point up to here is that Case and Theta seem to overlap quite a bit. As for the two distractors offered in class: ECM and Passive, I think they're trivial. For one, the passive is a marked form. In English, there's something about the + participle that tells you Case interpretation isn't what it normally is. There's a Passive marker in Arabic telling you the same thing. In German, too. Secondly, the fact that the Agent in the subordinate class of an ECM verb is marked with the Accusative form may only be a synchronic fact. Has anyone looked at the history of this construction? Funny things happen all the time in the course of language development. Greek (modern, I think) has no infinitive, but that doesn't mean the infinitive is a useless form; on the contrary, when Greek lost the final 'n' in cases, the infinitive looked identical to the third person singular. Consequently, people started to reinterpret the syntax of an control infinitivals. But the fact that Greek lacks an infinitive shouldn't be used as evidence for some theory, because it had an infinitive at some point. Perhaps the same holds with the English case.

As an endnote to all of this, I just discussed these views with a fellow linguist trained in the Generative tradition who also happens to have a PhD in theoretical syntax, and he agrees with the above argument. Why not send him back to Ling-610?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Statistics and the independence of syntax and semantics

I know we're moving on to animal communication, but I had a comment on last week's materials that I felt should be made. It seemed to me that the "take-away" lesson we converged on during the course of our discussion of the LSLT excerpts was that Markovian processes, whether hidden (over POS tags) , high order (lots of history), or both, were dismantled by Chomsky as implausible accounts of natural language phenomena. This is undoubtedly true, but not even remotely controversial for most folks who are interested in statistical models of language. What I thought was also quite evident from reading LSLT but wasn't really addressed was the fact that Chomsky also argues for independence of meaning and grammaticality (I know this sounds so obvious as to almost be another example of the inanity of people who "work on statistics"). However, the implications of this claim are actually extremely precise for any statistical model. Specifically, we know that the independence of two events A & B has the following properties:
  1. P(A,B) = P(A)P(B)
  2. P(A|B) = P(A)
  3. P(B|A) = P(B)
Therefore, if we are interested in "grammaticality" and are working with a model which conflates meaning and grammaticality (ie, P(A,B)), we must immediately doubt whether we can really even address the later without factoring out the former. Conversely, if we have a model which predicts both, we would expect their relationship (if Chomsky is right) to conform approximately to the relationship expressed in (1).

Any thoughts? Did I miss something obvious?